Every good actor plays direct to every good author, and every writer of fiction, though he may not adopt the dramatic form, writes in effect for the stage. — Charles Dickens, speaking at dinner for the Royal General Theatrical Fund, March 19, 1858
What is exaggeration to one class of minds and perceptions, is plain truth to another. That which is comrnonly called a long-sight, perceives in prospect innumerable features and bearings non-existent to a short-sighted person, I sometimes ask myself whether there may occasionally be a difference of this kind between some writers and some readers; whether it is always the writer who colours highly, or whether it is now and then the reader [whose eye for colour is a little dull. — Martin Chuzzlewit, Preface
. . . I work slowly and with great care, and never give way to my invention recklessly, but constantly restrain it: and . . . I think it is my infirmity to fancy or perceive relations in things which are not apparent generally. — Letter from Charles Dickens to Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1865.
ickens was first and foremost a storyteller. It was do that he thought of himself; it was so that he was regarded by the contemporary public for which, in the first instance, he wrote; and it is here that any critical examination of his achievement must begin. Like Shakespeare's plays, Dickens' novels are extraordinarily impure, in the sense that the writers of both were subject to many influences and were wholly unpredictable in their ways of amalgamating these influences into works perfectly unique in their kind. Dickens' reading, although wider than is generally recognized, was undiscriminating. His novels assume familiarity with those great repositories of English folk wisdom the Bible; fairy tales, fables, and nursery rhymes; The Pilgrim's Progress; Robinson Crusoe. From his earliest years he had accepted as mentors the eighteenth-century novelists and essayists, Smollett, Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, and Goldsmith. His knowledge of the drama was encyclopedic, extending from Shakespeare, whom he had by heart, down to the pantomimes, burlesques, and extravaganzas which formed the staples of the Victorian popular theater and to the love of which his writings constantly bear witness. In addition, he owes [79/80] a manifest debt to sources as disparate as the Arabian Nights, the Gothic romance, Scott, and Carlyle. Like Shakespeare again, however, what Dickens appropriated, he made so much his own that source studies are of limited validity in accounting for his artistic development. For was he ever much given to theorizing about his art. His correspondence and working notes relate, as a general rule, to the practical problems of planning the works in hand and accommodating them to the requirements of serialization.
Dickens' mastery over his medium is the record of his growth from a remarkably fecund improviser whose panoramic stories were presented as a series of discrete episodes to a writer capable of incorporating segments of narrative into complex, but tightly articulated, wholes. The conditions of publication in monthly or weekly installments discouraged, of course, unified plotting; and the two Prefaces to Pickwick Papers, the One for the first edition of 1837, the other for the "Cheap'' edition of 1847, show awareness of this fact. The original Preface readily grants the episodic nature of the work for which he had contracted:
The author's object in this work, was to place before the reader a constant succession of characters and incidents; to paint them in as vivid colours as he could command; and to render them, at the same time, life-like and amusing.
When, however, Dickens refers back to this Preface a decade later, he does so on a note of apology. Admitting that "no ingenuity of plot was attempted, or even at that time Considered very feasible by the author in connexion with the desultory mode of publication adopted," he goes on to confess, in the light of intervening "experience and study," that he "could [80/81] perhaps wish now that these chapters were strung together on a stronger thread of general interest...."
A letter to his early friend Thomas Mitton, written in 1839 while he was at work on Nicholas Nickleby, clearly shows the dilemma in which the writer found himself between the conception of each monthly part as a self-contained unit and broader concern for totality of effect:
I am doing the Snail at present — not the Railroad, and if I finish the next No. by next Saturday shall consider myself well off. The devil of it is, that I am afraid I must spoil a number now and then, for the sake of the book. It's a hard case, but I ought to be hard as iron to my own inclinations and do so.
The desire "to shorten the intervals of communication between himself and his readers," which led Dickens to embark in 1840 on Master Humphrey's Clock, did not at first seem incompatible with his artistic goals. The Preface expresses the intention: "In the execution of this weekly task, to have as much regard as its exigencies would permit, to each story as a whole, and to the possibility of its publication at some distant day, apart from the machinery in which it had its origin." The frustrations encountered in adapting The Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge to weekly installments led, however, to second thoughts; and Dickens' announcement in October 1841 that he was discontinuing Master Humphrey's Clock is an important manifesto of his increasing preoccupation with narrative continuity:
I should not regard the anxiety, the close confinement, or the constant attention, inseparable from the weekly form of publication (for to commune with you in any form, is to me a labour of love), if I had found it advantageous to the conduct of my stories, the elucidation of [81/82] my meaning, or the gradual development of my characters. But I have not done so. I have often felt cramped and confined in a very irksome and harassing degree, by the space in which I have been constrained to move. I have wanted you to know more at once than I could tell you; and it has frequently been of the greatest importance to my cherished intention, that you should do so. I have been sometimes strongly tempted ( and have been at some pains to resist the temptation) to hurry incidents on, lest they should appear to you who waited from week to week, and had not, like me, the result and purpose in your minds, too long delayed. In a word, I have found this form of publication most anxious, perplexing, and difficult. I cannot bear these jerking confidences which are no sooner begun than ended, and no sooner ended than begun again.
Many passages in a tale of any length, depend materially for their interest on the intimate relation they bear to what has gone before, or to what is to follow. I sometimes found it difficult when I issued thirty-two closely printed pages once a month, to sustain in your mind this needful connexion; in the present form of publication it is often, especially in the first half of a story, quite impossible to preserve it sufficiently through the current numbers. And although in my progress I am gradually able to set you right, and to show what my meaning has been, and to work it out, I sec no reason why you should ever be wrong when I have it in my power, by resorting to a better means of communication between us, to prevent it.
The ensuing novel in monthly parts, Martin Chuzzlewit, was the first to be organized around a central theme, that of egoism. The resultant necessity for planning in advance had significant implications for the serial method, as the author acknowledged in his Preface to the completed work:
I have endeavoured in the progress of this Tale, to resist the temptation of the current Monthly Number, and to keep a steadier eye upon the general purpose and design. [82/83] With this object in views I have put a strong constraint upon myself from time to time, in many places; and I hope the story is the better for it, now.
Henceforth the demands of overall form were to take priority over the balance and proportion of individual parts whenever the two came into conflict. The original Preface of Little Dorrit, for example, makes to the reader the following plea for suspended judgment:
I have been occupied with this story, during many working hours of two years. I must have been very ill employed, if I could not leave its merits and demerits as a whole, to express themselves on its being read as a whole. But, as it is not unreasonable to suppose that I may have held its various threads with a more continuous attention than anyone else can have given them during its desultory publication, it is not unreasonable to ask that the weaving may be looked at in its completed state, and with the pattern finished.
And the Postscript to Our Mutual Friend still more emphatically underscores the author's attention to unity of design:
To keep for a long time unsuspected, yet always working itself out, another purpose originating in that leading incident, and turning it to a pleasant and useful account at last, was at once the most interesting and the most difficult part of my design. Its difficulty was much enhanced by the mode of publication; for it would be very unreasonable to expect that many readers, pursuing a story in portions from month to month through nineteen months, will, until they have it before them complete, perceive the relations of its finer threads to the whole pattern which is always before the eyes of the Story-weaver at his loom.
The vocabulary which Dickens habitually employs to describe his narrative methods is extremely revealing [83/84] In contrast to such novelists as Samuel Richardson or Jane Austen or George Eliot or Henry James, he never seeks even in his most mature work to create the impression that his plots evolve by their own impetus out of an inner logic of events. Form and meaning do not organically coalesce; rather they are related through a process of deliberate and overt manipulation. To recur to Dickens' chosen analogy, the themes of the later novels provide the warp or groundwork through which the artist threads an intricate pattern of interlocking episodes to impose the desired completeness and finality of design.
Dickens' fiction stems from the mingling of epic and dramatic elements which imparted to the English novel its characteristic form in the eighteenth century. Translated into prose narrative, the epic, beginning with Cervantes, issues in all the many varieties of the picaresque tale. The novel's debt to drama is equally manifest, whether in the broadly farcical scenes of Fielding and Smollett or the obvious dependence of the sensation novelists on stage melodrama. By temperament and experience Dickens was receptive to both traditional strains. His life as a journalist prepared him to emulate the great writers of the previous century who ranged so broadly in recording the spectacle of contemporary life, just as his passion for the theater encouraged the tendency, in Ruskin's phrase, "to speak in a circle of stage fire."
In popular narrative and dramatic modes, then, Dickens found forms of expression conformable to his imaginative vision; and he set out to perfect a manner of his own through experimentation with their possibilities. The first six novels, from Pickwick Papers to Martin Chuzzlewit, however original in substance, are all more or less derivative in form, and exemplify the writer's efforts to assimilate to his expanding purposes [84/85] literary fashions of proven appeal to the mass of novel-readers and theater-goers.
Dickens' indebtedness to the fiction of Defoe, Smollett, and Fielding is reflected in the titles of many of his early stories, named after the heroes whose careers they ostensibly set forth, as well as in the elaborate and teasing chapter headings which occur as late as Dombey and Son. Again, in the manner of the picaresque tale, extensive portions of these works are taken up with the protagonists' wanderings on journeys that offer a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of adventures, inviting every kind of treatment, whether satiric, burlesque, sentimental, or pathetic. If Pickwick, at least at the start, is the Quixotically lovable middle-aged buffoon, Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit represent bland versions of the youthful rogue. And just as Pickwick has his Sancho Panza in Sam Weller, so Nicholas and Martin are accompanied by their youthful servitors, Smike and Mark Tapley. Dickens even takes over from Cervantes and his followers the device of interpolated tales to lend tonal variety to Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby.
Because of its episodic nature can be adapted to a wide spectrum of subject matter. Dickens notably extended its range to make room for his love of the fabulous. This is particularly evident in his use of motifs from folklore which add a fairy-tale dimension to so many of his novels. A related aspect of the writer's practice evokes an allegorical or exemplary frame of reference. The original title, Oliver Twist, or, the Parish Boy's Progress, indicates the author's debt to Bunyan in that work. Introducing Nell to the reader, Master Humphrey remarks that "she seemed to exist in a kind of allegory," and her wayfaring is several times likened to a pilgrimage.
The dissatisfaction which Dickens early felt with [84/85] the random and inconsecutive nature of the picaresque manner is apparent, however, from his efforts to give his stories greater cohesiveness. The nine intercalated tales in Pickwick Papers are so placed as to provide a somber commentary on the leading episodes in the main action; and all readers have observed that Pickwick's imprisonment in the Fleet signalizes a notable tightening of narrative control. In Nicholas Nickleby, which includes only two incidental tales, a counterpointing effect is achieved through the double story line, the hero's exploits being with some consistency played off against his sister's misadventures. In The Old Curiosity Shop the author was clearly endeavoring to combine the narrative sweep of Pickwick Papers with the denser atmospheric unity of Oliver Twist; and while there is still a want of tonal consistency, a measure of continuity accrues from the author's use of the chase to create suspense, as Nell flies from the city to escape Quilp. In his choice of ran historical setting for Barnaby Rudge, Dickens was, at least in part, motivated by the desire to rival Scott; and the example of the earlier novelist was beneficial to the extent that the Gordon Riots provided occasion for a sustained display of descriptive virtuosity unparalleled in the writer's previous work. With Martin Chuzzlewit, finally, Dickens discovered how to hold in tension the diverse elements of a many-faceted story by associating them with a single theme. Bondage to self unites narrative strands as divergent as Martin's deluded excursion to the United States, Pecksniff's hypocritical dodges, Tigg's bold-faced chicanery, and Mrs. Gamp's histrionic antics.
Like Fielding's, Dickens' manner is primarily scenic, originating in a sure feeling for theatrical effects. The opening of Chapter 17 of Oliver Twist succinctly [86/87] summarizes the characteristics of contemporary melodrama. The passage begins:
It is the custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song. We behold, with throbbing bosoms, the heroine in the grasp of a proud and ruthless baron her virtue and her life alike in danger, drawing forth her dagger to preserve the one at the cost of the other; and just as our expectations are wrought up to the highest pitch, a whistle is heard, and we are straightway transported to the great hall of the castle: where a greyheaded seneschal sings a funny chorus with a funnier body of vassals, who are free of all sorts of places, from church vaults to palaces, and roam about in company, caroling perpetually.
The ensuing paragraph goes on to suggest that these abrupt changes are more in the habitual course of things than living actors on the stage of life are apt to realize:
Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death-beds, and from mourning-weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only, there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. The actors in the mimic life of the theatre, are blind to violent transitions and abrupt impulses of passion or feeling, which, presented before the eyes of mere spectators, are at once condemned as outrageous and preposterous.
The early novels are remarkable for individual scenes; and the fact that this is so is owing to their dramatic [87/88] conception. Oliver in the poorhouse asking for a second helping of gruel and the death of Sikes linger in memory after all the contrivances on which the plot of Oliver Twist hinges have gone out of mind. The "streaky bacon" alternations to which Dickens refers are exemplified in the opening of Nicholas Nickleby where, by the most abrupt of transitions, the hero moves from Dotheboys Hall to Vincent Crummles' strolling troupe. Of Dickens' genius for hilariously comic episodes it is hardly necessary to speak. Every reader will have his own favorites: the trial in Pickwick Papers, Mrs. Nickleby's wooing by "the gentleman next door," Pecksniff's drunken frolic at Todgers's. But the primary importance of scene as a structural unit in Dickens' early fiction is still better illustrated by the great passages of melodramatic action to which the stories build through mounting suspense.
Dickens was fascinated by violence from childhood, when his nurse fed his imagination with blood-curdling yarns. He told Forster of the avidity with which later during schooldays he devoured "penny dreadfuls":
I used, when I was at school, to take in the Terrific Register, making myself unspeakable miserable, and frightening my very wits out of my head, for the small charge of a penny weekly; which considering that there was an illustration to every number, in which there was always a pool of blood, and at least one body, was cheap.
And Edmund Wilson in his psychoanalytic discussion of Dickens' writings discerns in the macabre tales in Pickwick Papers early evidence of the novelist's lifelong obsession with the workings of the criminal mind. It may be that this side of Dickens' nature speaks with special cogency to the lawless and unprincipled modern world which has shown a disposition to accept the [88/89]
prevalence of bloodshed and cruelty in these novels, while rejecting everything that smacks of sentimentality or pathos. However this may be, there can be no disputing the absolute scenic mastery demonstrated in many of the great set pieces of the early novels: the death of Sikes, Jonas Chuzzlewit's murder of Tigg, the burning of the Warren and of Newgate in Barnaby Rudge.
In calling on the conventional artifices of melodramatic plotting, Dickens was endeavoring to replace the straight linear progression of the picaresque tale with a more involved type of narrative, as a comparison of Oliver Twist with Pickwick Papers makes clear. Nevertheless, no amount of stage machinery can disguise the absence of organic structure in the early stories. Dickens' second novel originates in the declared purpose "to show the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance." Oliver is the first embodiment of a conception to which his creator was to return more than once — the lost child; and the sequence of episodes which subjects the helpless boy to one malignant environment after another could hardly be bettered. The eventual working out of his fortunes is, however, outrageously fabricated. Monks' villainy, with the accompanying business of hidden identities, concealed relationships, and destroyed wills, illustrates every excess of the sensation novel; and the counteracting forces of good, vested in Mr. Brownlow and the Maylies, operate in an equally preposterous way. A similar theme inspired The Old Curiosity Shop, in the Preface to which the author states:
. . . in writing the book, I had it always in my fancy to surround the lonely figure of the child with grotesque and wild, but not impossible, companions, and to gather about [79/80] her innocent face and pure intentions, associates as strange and uncongenial as the grim objects that are about her bed when her history is first foreshadowed.
Here again the stark black and white division of the moral world between the contending forces of vice and virtue falsifies Nell's ordeal. Quilp's monstrous hounding of the heroine seems largely gratuitous, and save for excruciating the reader's emotions, it is difficult to see what purpose is served by her death. Although in Barnaby Rudge sons are uniformly victimized by their fathers, the pattern of parental oppression so central to Dickens' later themes has no radical connection with the development of the story.
Oliver and Nell and Barnaby are passive under their misfortunes. They are the occasion for good or evil actions by others, but do not themselves initiate P any significant developments in their respective-stories. Nicholas Nickleby and Martin Chuzzlewit are equally vapid — colorless transcriptions of the picaresque prototype. Nicholas is, by and large, the author's agent for passing in review various conditions of contemporary life about which he was moved to write. Ralph Nickleby's plot to betray Kate to Sir Mulberry Hawk, which only tangentially involves Nicholas, is a stock situation to create additional suspense, and the same is true of the tawdry intrigue relating to Madeline and Gride. In this novel more than any other the reader senses a lack of narrative direction. Through long sections the author is simply applying the familiar formula for melodrama: "Make 'em laugh; make 'em cry; make 'em wait." The incidents in Martin Chuzzlewit are more closely linked by the encompassing theme. Young Martin's hardships in America, for example, instill in him a new regard to the well-being of others. The role [90/91] of the protagonist, however, is peripheral to nearly all of the striking scenes. Indeed, remarking on the novel's Jonsonian ground plan, Forster writes that "the notion of taking Pecksniff for a type of character was really the origin of the book; the design being to show, more or less by every person introduced, the number and variety of humours and vices that have their root in selfishness." And finally, Barnaby Rudge sets up two discrete stories, since the lurid murder mystery adumbrated in the first half has no real bearing on the spectacular treatment of the mob scenes which follow.
Before leaving the subject, something should be said about the relationship between Dickens' fictional practices and the popular dramatic entertainments of the day. The middle-class audience which crowded into the vast Victorian theaters was the same public that eagerly awaited the numbers of Nicholas Nickleby and The Old Curiosity Shop; and the problems of communication across the footlights or by the printed word were in many respects the same. For the motley offerings of the pantomimes, burlesques, extravaganzas, and melodramas which captured the fancy of contemporary theater-goers, Dickens substituted the equally varied fare of his packed installments. And just as writers for the stage used stock characters and situations, bold contrasts of mood ranging from buffoonery to pathos and horror, broadly stylized mannerisms of gesture and speech, and elaborate settings and tricks of stagecraft, so Dickens exploited their counterparts in his stories. Since each section of narrative must make an immediate impact, like a self-contained but tonally diversified skit, but since there was as well the necessity of sustaining interest from week to week or month to month, he appropriated from the stage a vast repertory of artifices to create expectation of what was to come [91/92] and to facilitate the retention of what had already taken place. To his reliance on the familiar intrigues of farce and melodrama with their parallel situations and duplicating episodes should be added such additional devices, more particularly associated with characterization, as tag lines, eccentricities of dress and manner, and the display of conventionalized affectations all designed to promote the reader's continuing involvement in the story.
In summary, the first decade of Dickens' literary career, during which he wrote six novels, was a period of constant experimentation, when he explored his narrative talents under the influence of prevalent modes in fiction and the drama. He had yet to achieve the consistency of attitude toward his material which would enable him to coordinate his storytelling skills in unified imaginative creations. This all-important stage in his development came during the 1840S with the deepening of his social consciousness, brought about in part by participation in public life, but inspired as well by the contagious zeal of such reformers as Carlyle. Dombey and Son is the first of Dickens' novels to project a unitary view of society in terms of class structure. The relevance of this view to the novelist's social criticism has been often remarked; but less attention has been paid to its artistic implications, particularly as affecting the organization of his narratives.
Dombey and Son, like its predecessors, has the breadth of focus that was the heritage of the picaresque tradition; but here the action is more purposefully controlled by its setting amidst the conditions of contemporary life. The theme is pride, as egoism was of Martin Chuzzlewit; but whereas in the previous work the governing vice is largely divorced from historical context, Dombey's pride is an inseparable component [92/93] of his mentality as a representative of the commercial middle class. Contrary to his usual practice, Dickens outlined to Forster his plans for the new novel. This passage provides unmistakable evidence that the writer had come to feel the need for working out his story in advance, and also indicates his progress toward a more organic concept of plot structure:
I design to show Mr. D. with that one idea of the Son taking firmer and firmer possession of him, and swelling and bloating his pride to a prodigious extent. As the boy begins to grow up, I shall show him quite impatient for his getting on, and urging his masters to set him great tasks, and the like. But the natural affection of the boy will turn to the despised sister; and I purpose showing her learning all sorts of things, of her own application and determination, to assist him in his lessons: and helping him always. When the boy is about ten years old (in the fourth number), he will be taken ill, and will die; and when he is ill, and when he is dying, I mean to make him turn always for refuge to the sister still, and keep the stern affection of the father at a distance. So Mr. Dombey — for all his greatness, and for all his devotion to the child — will find himself at arms' length from him even then, and will see that his love and confidence are all bestowed upon his sister, whom Mr. Dombey has used — and so has the boy himself too, for that matter — as a mere convenience and handle to him. The death of the boy is a death-blow, of course, to all the father's schemes and cherished hopes and "Dombey and Son," as Miss Tox will say at the end of the number, "is a Daughter after all." . . . From that time, I purpose changing his feeling of indifference and uneasiness towards his daughter into a positive hatred. For he will always remember how the boy had his arm round her neck when he was dying, and whispered to her, and would take things only from her hand, and never thought of him. . . At the same time I shall change her feeling towards him for one of a greater desire to love him, and to be loved by him; engendered in her compassion for his loss, and her love for the dead boy whom, in his way, he loved so well too. So I mean to carry the story on, [93/94] through all the branches and off-shoots and meanderings that come up; and through the decay and downfall of the house, and the bankruptcy of Dombey, and all the rest of it; when his only staff and treasure, and his unknown Good Genius always, will be this rejected daughter, who will come out better than any son at last, and whose love for him, when discovered and understood, will be his bitterest reproach. For the struggle with himself, which goes on in all such obstinate natures, will have ended then, and the sense of his injustice, which you may be sure has never quitted him, will have at last a gentler office than of only making him more harshly unjust.... I rely very much on Susan Nipper grown up, and acting partly as Florence's maid, and partly as a kind of companion to her, for a strong character throughout the book. I also rely on the Toodles, and on Polly, who like everybody else will be found by Mr. Dombey to have gone over to his daughter and become attached ro her. This is what cooks call "the stock of the soup." All kinds of things will be added to it, of course.
The foregoing summary, it will be noted, includes no reference to Dombey's second marriage, or to Carker's role in the downfall of his fortunes; but these later developments are a natural enough outgrowth of the initial design. The same aggressive and coldly materialistic class-consciousness, which leads Dombey systematically to destroy his children's lives, carries over to his calculated cheapening of the marriage bond. That the two motifs were from the outset connected in the author s mind is apparent from Hablot Browne's cover design, which Dickens referred to as "shadowing out [the] drift and bearing" of his novel.
In his recipe for what he called "the stock of the soup," Dickens announced that "all kinds of things would be added"; and reporting progress to Forster he jubilantly stated: "I think Dombey very strong — with great capacity in its leading idea; plenty of character that is likely to tell; and some rollicking facetiousness, [94/95] to say nothing of pathos." In other words, the author did not find increasing care for total design incommensurate with the demands of the individual parts. Although some memoranda for The Old Curiosity Shop and for two issues of Martin Chuzzlewit survive, Dombey and Son is apparently the first novel for which Dickens consistently prepared working notes, as was to be his habit for all subsequent works except A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. These number plans, indispensable for the study of Dickens' authorial habits in the later stages of his career, are described in Dickens at Work by Professors Butt and Tillotson, and in Dickens Romancier by Professor Sylvère Monod. Of their general purpose the authors of the former volume have written:
These were the kind of notes which experience showed that his system of publication and his manner of work required of him. They do not determine the pattern of the novel, they do not define the path of the story, but they ensure that, the pattern once determined, the threads do nor go awry, and, the path once set, there is no serious deviation in a course of as much as nineteen months. Furthermore, they have an abiding interest in that they shed light on the design in the pattern and serve to show the measure of control which Dickens exercised.
Dickens followed a uniform procedure in his notations for works in progress. They were entered on the facing halves of a folded sheet of paper. The right-hand side, serving what has been called "the recording function," usually contains a chapter-by-chapter summary of the principal episodes of the installment. The left-hand space, reserved for "the planning function," sheds much more light on the creative process itself. Here the author deliberates over a large variety of practical considerations with regard to the handling of [95/96] his story. The jottings include catch phrases and hints for motifs still to be developed, trial versions of characters' names and directions for their entrances and exits, speculations about the placing and structuring of incidents. Frequently the memoranda take the form of self-queries, as the writer debates the immediate use, postponement, or rejection of material, alternate ways of presenting it, questions of emphasis and tone. The evidence provided by the number plans that Dickens was learning to make each strand in his stories contributory to the total design is corroborated by his treatment of the two most sensational happenings in Dombey and Son, the deaths of Paul Dombey and Carker. Mrs. Dombey's demise in the first chapter foreshadows and sets the stage for that of Paul. Not only does the dying mother turn from her husband to her daughter for final consolation, but the moment of death introduces the metaphor of mutability which dominates Paul's dying fancies: "Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar within her arms, the mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world." The notes for Chapter l4 state: "Paul's illness only expressed in the child's own feelings. News of Paul's illness. No. Not otherwise described." Dickens thus compels the reader to identify himself with the boy's own point of view as his life flows away. This technique, combined with the obvious centrality of the event in the unfolding plot, relieves the passage of much of the sentimental irrelevance of Nell's death. Carker's melodramatic end goes far to atone for the egregiously stilted encounter between him and Edith Dombey at Dijon, which was, as has been said, an afterthought on the author's part. From early in the story the railway has been established as a second and more violent image of change; and indeed, in Chapter 20, describing Dombey's dreary rail journey to Leamington, [96/97] it is explicitly apostrophized as "the remorseless monster, Death." There is, then, perfect dramatic appropriateness in its evocation as the nemesis on which Carker rushes, the more so since the reader accompanies that character on his baffled flight, subjectively sharing the accelerating impressions that anticipate the catastrophe. Dickens' choice of first-person narrative for his next novel, David Copperfield, may have been in part influenced, as has been said, by Charlotte Brontë's brilliant success with the same mode in Jane Eyre the preceding year. Both stories trace the stages leading to the protagonists' discovery of their true identities; and Jane and David undergo similar ordeals entailing loss of innocence through revolt against injustice and banishment from their homes. By consistently assuming his hero's point of view Dickens is able to impart a new element of psychological continuity to the picaresque form, indeed to invest it with the continuity of the Bildungsroman. An early critic in the Perspective Review (1851) acutely remarked of David Copperfield:
by the adoption of this difficult form of writing the author has secured a unity and completeness which we have never seen equalled in a serial tale. It is in truth a very fine specimen of constructive skill. Complicated as the story is, and numerous as are the characters, all flows naturally from the mouth of the narrator, never leaving us to wonder how he got his information, and scarcely ever encumbered with devices to supply the gaps in his personal knowledge. Wonderfully well has the author succeeded in identifying himself with his principal personage. Every line is coloured with the hues of memory, and the subdued tone of a distant view is given to the whole....
In addition, "the blending of experience and imagination," which David says is inseparable from the act of [97/98] remembering, introduces a still more comprehensive unity of the order of myth. For all their vivid actuality, David's recollections of his childhood at Blunderstone Rookery, of his visits to Peggotty's boathouse, of his flight to Betsey Trotwood, of his schooldays at Rochester, and of his marriage to Dora create an aura of fantasy akin to the fairy-tale world with which these passages are so constantly associated. To achieve this atmospheric consistency Dickens subtly manipulates the time sequence to produce a kind of double focus. The reader is at once with the experiencing youth (note, for example, the four retrospective chapters told in the present tense) and with the mature man who assesses the meaning of these experiences. As the gap between past and present closes, the life pattern assumes coherence. It is not until Chapter 45, and even then only through vicarious involvement in the Strongs' marital affairs, that David becomes aware of the need to discipline the heart's impulses and so arrives at full self-knowledge.
Steerforth's role in David Copperfield posed the additional problem of reconciling two separate stories. In contrast to the relationships which directly affect David's growth to maturity, the portions of the tale treating Emily's seduction and its aftermath lack conviction. A number of scenes (of which the confrontation between Emily and Rosa Dartle is the most obtrusive example) are in the worst melodramatic manner of the early novels, since they attempt to coerce sympathy on grounds that have been insufficiently prepared. There are indications, however, that Dickens was beginning to work his way toward the kind of plot, later to be perfected, in which the action itself would become the principal means of elucidating theme. The sea, invoked metaphorically in Dombey and Son to foretell Paul's death, is translated in David Copperfield [98/99] into the agent of retributive justice. As Peggotty prepares to set out in search of Emily, a significant exchange takes place between David and Ham. The latter has fallen into a reverie; and when David asks what he is thinking about, the mariner replies:
"On what's afore me, Mas'r Davy; and over yon."
"On the life before you, do you mean?" He had pointed confusedly out to sea.
"Ay, Mas'r Davy. I doen't rightly know how 'tis, but from over yon there seemed to me to come — the end of it like;" looking at me as if he were waking, but with the same determined face.
"What end?" I asked, possessed by my former fear.
"I don't know," he said thoughtfully. "I was calling to mind that the beginning of it all did take place here — and then the end come...."
"The remembrance of this . . . ," David adds, "haunted me at intervals, even until the inexorable end came at its appointed time." Steerforth's death in the grand storm scene in Chapter 55 thus seems in no sense coincidental, but rather the terminal link in a predestined chain of cause and effect. Furthermore, the narrator's memories have been ironically ordered to forecast this denouement. The concluding paragraphs of Chapters 6 and 29 present David's view of Steerforth in precisely the posture, head on arm, in which the waves leave his drowned body on the beach at Yarmouth.
Bleak House is in many ways the masterpiece of Dickens' narrative art. For this novel the author undertook to fuse the methods of Dombey and Son and David Copperfield. The all-pervasive evil emanating from the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce is objectively presented by an impersonal narrator. The blighting influence of this evil on the individual lives involved in the case is rendered in the first-person account [99/100] of Esther Summerson. Of the 67 chapters, 33 or almost exactly half are given to Esther, while the omniscient speaker reserves the remaining 34 for himself. So skillfully are the two points of view spliced that they occur in alternation in fourteen of the twenty monthly parts. Only one installment is wholly devoted to Esther's narrative, and five to that of the commentator.
The omniscient voice speaks in the present tense. The dramatic potentialities of this mode Dickens exploits with extraordinary mastery in such chapters as that describing Captain Hawdon's death, where the reader, unaware of what lies in store, proceeds through accumulating suspense to the horrible revelation. Scenes are discontinuous, spatially related in shifting patterns that create a kaleidoscopic effect. The action advances by a process of episodic intensification. Thus, Chapter 3, in which Esther is smitten with smallpox, is immediately followed by the description of Krook's incineration; and Jo's pathetic death and Tulkinghorn's murder occur in successive chapters. Both pairs of dramatic events take place within single installments, furthermore, so that the full impact aimed at in juxtaposing these climactic scenes came across to the original readers. Bleak House is the first of Dickens' novels to postulate a completely organic view of society. The arrangement of episodes reinforces in narrative terms the impression of interconnectedness accruing from the web of character relationships and the points of identity between the various settings. It has been objected that too much of the action is fortuitous. Gissing, for example, wrote:
In the fable of Bleak House there is much ingenuity, but an almost total disregard of probability; the fitting of [99/100] incidents suggests a mechanical puzzle rather than the complications of human life, arbitrary coincidence takes the place of well-contrived motive, and at times the motive suggested is glaringly inadequate.
Yet, when so much is accidental, the reader's normal concern for verisimilitude is suspended. Dickens, indeed, viewed the world as a place where individual destinies constantly intersect under the inscrutable dispensations of chance. Forster states that the writer often spoke of "his favorite theory as to the smallness of the world, and how things and persons apparently the most unlikely to meet were continually knocking up against each other." And in another place Dickens' biographer remarks:
On the coincidences, resemblances, and surprises of life Dickens liked especially to dwell, and few things moved his fancy so pleasantly. The world, he would say, was so much smaller than we thought it; we were all so connected by fate without knowing it; people supposed to be far apart were so constantly elbowing each other; and tomorrow bore so close a resemblance to nothing half so much as yesterday.
In Dickens' world, however, the apparent randomness of existence conceals an underlying providence. Although the earlier novels frequently hint at this belief, it was as yet unembodied in credible actions. "How all things come about!" cries Monks when he is unmasked; and Dickens comments in Martin Chuzzlewit on "the remorseless course" of the history which he is unfolding. Not before Bleak House, however, does the writer succeed in creating a machinery of events so intermeshed that it needs only to be set in motion to operate with something of the inevitability of fate in classical drama.
Of the plotting of Bleak House Forster, who so [101/102] often anticipates the findings of later critics, has this to say:
Nothing is introduced at random, everything tends to the catastrophe, the various lines of the plot converge and fir to its center, and to the larger interest all the rest is irresistibly drawn. The heart of the story is a Chancery suit. On this the plot hinges; and on incidents connected with it, trivial or important, the passion and suffering turn exclusively. Chance words, or the deeds of chance people, to appearance irrelevant, are found everywhere influencing the course taken by a train of incidents of which the issue is life or death, happiness or misery, to men and women perfectly unknown to them, and to whom they are unknown.
The aptness of this judgment could be substantiated by innumerable episodes in the novel; but two, bearing on the exposure of Lady Dedlock's guilt, will suffice for illustrative purposes. The chase, proverbially one of the surest devices for building suspense, has rarely been employed more adeptly than in Bleak House. Alerted by different clues, coincidentally discovered, and motivated by wholly different aims, Guppy and Tulkinghorn are unwittingly pitted against each other on the trail of the unhappy woman. On the verge of discovery Lady Dedlock is saved from each of her persecutors by the intervention of violent death, first Krook's, then Tulkinghorn's. But the pursuit is immediately taken over by Bucket and Esther who follow her to her own death. A different train of circumstances unites Lady Dedlock's fate with two beings at the very farthest remove from her in the social scale — Jo, the despised crossing-sweeper, and Jenny, the brickmaker's wife. In the workings of the plot these characters become the agents of a transcendent moral purpose which dooms those who deny the sacred impulses of the heart. For Jo and Jenny had been kindly [102/103] treated by Captain Hawdon and Esther, the lover and child whom Lady Dedlock has rejected.
In contrast to the concept of an inexorably stern providence, Esther through her narrative represents the presence of loving compassion imminent in the human spirit. Whereas Dickens as omniscient recorder savagely excoriates social oppression, Esther speaking in her own person voices a counterbalancing sympathy with the victims of all such oppression. Since she is looking back on events that occurred seven years before, her recollections oppose a temporal dimension to the spatial pattern of dovetailing episodes in the historical present. Happenings which seem discontinuous and coincidental when viewed objectively offer in Esther's perspective the appearance of a sequential and causally ordered progression. As she remarks with reference to Ada's mute suffering over Richard's involvement in Chancery proceedings: ". . . I observed it in many slight particulars which were nothing in themselves and only became something when they were pieced together." Early in the story John Jarndyce admonishes Richard: 'Trust in nothing but Providence and your own efforts. Never separate the two...." Although one may take exception to Esther's saccharine naivete, so typical of Dickens' girl heroines, it is her cooperant will which infuses the redemptive power of love into the wasteland of Bleak House, as Charley and Jenny, Caddy Jellyby and Ada Clare are present to attest.
Admittedly something of a tour de force in its split narrative technique, Bleak House heralds further experimentation with methods of shaping and integrating the multifarious materials of Dickens' fiction into harmonious wholes. The slips on which the author wrote the periodic installments of his stories reveal that by the time of Martin Chuzzlewit he no [103/104] longer trusted the improvisatorial facility of the early years and that the act of composition was becoming an altogether more laborious business. Hereafter, each successive manuscript, together with the number plans, bears evidences of the increasingly stringent artistic demands which Dickens made on himself. Of Our Mutual Friend, his last complete work, he wrote to Forster: "I have grown hard to satisfy, and write very slowly." The change is graphically illustrated by two facsimiles reproduced in Forster's Life, the one of a slip from Oliver Twist sent to the printer almost without revision, the other of the final completed page of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, so heavily scored over and interlineated as to be almost illegible.
The biography also gives telltale listings of the various titles for his books which Dickens mulled over from David Copperfield on. He found it difficult to embark on a new story until he had decided what it was to be called; and the alternate names, suggestive of different approaches and emphases, clearly indicate that this hesitation resulted from the need to have a clear plan in mind. In making memoranda for the second number of Hard Times, Dickens concluded that the action of this novel logically fell into three divisions, which were entitled "Sowing," "Reaping," and "Garnering" when the work was published in its entirety. All subsequent novels were mapped out in books or parts; and a statement about Great Expectations shows that Dickens had come to regard these structural units as integral to the total design: "It is a pity that the third portion cannot be read all at once, because its purpose would be much more apparent; and the pity is the greater, because the general turn and tone of the working out and winding up, will be away from all such things as they conventionally go."
In contrast to earlier works, the opening scenes [104/105] of the later novels exhibit a confident artistry, further indicative of scrupulous forethought. They not only announce leading themes for subsequent development, but also immediately and dramatically enlist the reader's interest in series of events, the resolution of which may be withheld for many hundreds of pages. Especially noteworthy is the first chapter of Our Mutual Friend, which presents Lizzie Hexam rowing her father along the Thames in pursuit of his ghastly traffic in drowned corpses. The girl's obvious repugnance to his calling draws from Gaffer the following complaint:
"How can you be so thankless to your best friend, Lizzie? The very fire that warmed you when you were a baby, was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges. The very basket that you slept in, the tide washed ashore. The very rockers that I put it upon to make a cradle of it, I cut out of a piece of wood that drifted from some ship or another."
But Lizzie will have better reasons for being grateful for her early apprenticeship to the Thames; for the skill in boat-handling then acquired enables her at the climax of the story to retrieve Eugene's battered body from its waters. Dickens' notes for this episode in the seventeenth number read: "Back to the opening chapter. Strongly."
A clearer notion of the increasingly rigorous control which Dickens exercised over his materials may be gained by briefly considering two pairs of novels which offer grounds for comparison. A Tale of Two Cities., like Barnaby Rudge, resorts to an historical setting; but in the earlier book the writer had not yet learned how to project the private lives of his characters against a background of public events. The mob violence, released by the Gordon Riots of I780, although [105/106] late in erupting, develops such torrential force, thanks to Dickens' descriptive power, that it ends by overflowing and obscuring the contours of the framing narrative. The French Revolution, on the other hand, is from the start the focal center of A Tale of Two Cities.; all elements of the story are gradually, but inevitably magnetized by it. A letter to Forster in 1859 leaves no doubt that in this novel Dickens concentrated his attention more fully than ever before on unity of action:
. . . I set myself the little task of making a picturesque story, rising in every chapter, with characters true to nature, but whom the story itself should express, more than they should express themselves, by dialogue. I mean in other words, that I fancied a story of incident might be written, in place of the odious stuff that is written under that pretence, pounding the characters out in its own mortar, and bearing their interests out of them. If you could have read the story all at once, I hope you wouldn't have stopped halfway.
When Wilkie Collins objected that the reader had not been sufficiently prepared for Charles Darnay's fate, Dickens replied: "I think the business of art is to lay all the ground carefully, not with the care that conceals itself — to show, by a backward light, what everything has been working to — but only to suggest, until the fulfilment comes. These are the ways of Providence, of which all art is but a little imitation." Equally significant is the argument with which the novelist met Forster's criticism that Madame Defarge's death at the hands of Miss Pross is not sufficiently credible:
I am not clear, and I never have been, respecting the canon of fiction which forbids the interposition of accident in such a case as Madame Defarge's death. Where [105/106] the accident is inseparable from the passion and action of the character; where it is strictly consistent with the entire design, and arises out of some culminating proceeding on the part of the individual which the whole story has led up to; it seems to me to become, as it were, an act of divine justice. And when I use Miss Pross . . . to bring about such a catastrophe, I have the positive intention of making that half-comic intervention a part of the desperate woman's failure; and of opposing that mean death, instead of a desperate one in the streets which she wouldn't have minded, to the dignity of Carton's. Wrong or right, this was all designed and seemed to me to be in the fitness of things.
The role of Miss Pross is the culminating example of a type of resolution occurring in many of Dickens' novels. The power of evil is formidably strong in his, as in Shakespeare's, world; and the novelist's villains, like those of the dramatist, are as a general rule not only more intelligent, but also stronger willed than their adversaries. Through their resourcefulness and egoism they exert kinds of power which disarm the forces of good. Frequently, as in Shakespearean tragedy, they are entrapped in their machinations and bring about their own downfall; but more often they are defeated by minor and apparently ineffectual characters in scenes that recall the traditionally comic device of unmasking. This peculiarly Dickensian form of poetic justice leads to a number of unpredictable, but conclusive show-downs between characters as illassorted as Micawber and Uriah Heep, Sissy Jupe and James Harthouse, and Pancks and Casby.
For Great Expectations Dickens returned to the autobiographical mode of David Copperfield; but Pip is far more the protagonist of his story than David of his. There is no scene in which Pip does not play an instrumental part, whereas, after the opening chapters of the earlier novel, David is reduced to the role of [107/108] passive onlooker at the rival complications involving Uriah and the Wickfields, Steerforth and the Peggottys, Jack Malden and the Strongs. Even the great childhood scenes lack the immediacy of their counterparts in Great Expectations. David's reconstruction of his early years has the quality of "emotion recollected in tranquillity"; the prevailing tone of nostalgic regret for lost innocence produces an impression of remoteness, relegating the speaker's experiences to an idyllic past. In Great Expectations the reader is at once immersed in the boy's subjective responses, as Pip seeks to establish his identity vis-à-vis the imperfectlv understood world which is opening up around him. Dickens' method of limiting point of view is cinematographic, varying in the opening chapter from the close-up when Magwitch first erupts on Pip's terrified vision to the long shot of the criminal's departure over the marshes, which conveys a first intimation of furtive sympathy. Pip's physical upending by Magwitch in the graveyard has its moral analogue in a dislocation of values, not to be restored to equilibrium until the hero learns to distinguish between appearance and reality, both in his own being and in his relations with others. For Pip's expectations are erected on a basis of ironic misconceptions. Miss Havisham, the putative fairy godmother, turns out to be the evil witch; Magwitch is transmuted from villain into surrogate parent and would-be benefactor, replacing the rejected Joe; Estella, far from being the princess of the tale, is revealed as Magwitchts true child by a murderess.
David stumbles on the truth about himself through the examples of others; Pip slowly and painfully acquires self-knowledge by learning to accept responsibility for his own actions. Although he is slow to piece them together, the clues by which, in Pip's own [108/109] phraseology, he is to be followed into his "poor labyrinth" are so artfully disposed by the author that each episode only becomes fully meaningful in the light of all that has come before and will follow after. Thus, to take only one example, Pip's sense of complicity with lawbreakers grows out of his theft for Magwitch. The leg manacle, severed by the stolen file, provides the weapon with which Orlick bludgeons Mrs. Gargery; and this deed prepares in turn for the great scene at the lime kiln when Pip confronts his alter ego. Dickens draws attention to the care with which he has laid the train of events by a fable, derived from Tales of the Genii, which occurs at the end of Chapter 38 immediately after Pip has at last seen Estella in her true colors and just before Magwitch returns to make a mockery of his expectations:
In the Eastern story, the heavy slab that was to fall on the bed of state in the flush of conquest was slowly wrought out of the quarry, the tunnel for the rope to hold it in its place was slowly carried through the leagues of rock, the slab was slowly raised and fitted in the roof, the rope was rove to it and slowly taken through the miles of hollow to the great iron ring. All being made ready with much labour, and the hour come, the sultan was roused in the dead of the night, and the sharpened axe that was to sever the rope from the great iron ring was put into his hand, and he struck with it, and the rope parted and rushed away, and the ceiling fell. So, in my case, all the work, near and afar, that tended to the end, had been accomplished; and in an instant the blow was struck, and the roof of my stronghold dropped upon me.
"You have made your own snares," Miss Havisham tells Pip on his last visit but one to Satis House. Ostensibly victimized by those who would use him for their own selfish ends, Pip is nevertheless led step by step, such is the compulsion of Dickens' narrative, to realize that every individual has a reciprocal share in the [108/109] wrongdoing of which he has been, however innocently, the occasion. Estella is speaking for her lover when she says in the revised ending that "suffering has been stronger than all other teaching...." And it is for want of sufficient assurance, beyond her own statement, that she has learned the same hard lesson, that the original conclusion seems more commensurate with the novel's design.
Despite Dickens' continuing dissatisfaction with weekly serialization, its restrictions of scope imposed on the later novels in this form an economy and coherence of organization which compensate for the imaginative fertility of the more expansive works which preceded them. Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations look forward to The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which has some claim to be considered the writer's most original narrative achievement, although its fragmentary state must forever defy final critical assessment. On the other hand, Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend, the two final novels in twenty monthly parts, show unmistakable signs that the writer's inventiveness had begun to flag under the strain of devising and sustaining the great ramified plot structures of earlier days. The involved exposition of Mrs. Clenham's secret not only taxes credulity, but winds up the novel's central intrigue on an anticlimactic note; and the overworking of the disguise motif makes the Rokesmith-Bella plot of Our Mutual Friend equally implausible. The technical aspects of greatest interest in these novels relate to the grouping of the extensive casts of characters and the proliferation of settings, as means of embodying the author's darkening vision of his world. This is not to say, however, that the writer did not continue to tax his narrative resources for more effective means of projecting that vision.[110/111]
Dickens experienced unusual difficulty in deciding on a story to support the critical purpose which was his point of departure in Little Dorrit. So much is apparent from Browne's cover, which depicts the primary thematic concerns of the novel, but does not, as in the design for Dombey and Son, suggest their investiture in concrete episodes. With the first part completed, the writer thought of starting over again in line with a new approach, which he described as follows to Forster: "It struck me that it would be a new thing to show people coming together, in a chance way, as fellow-travelers, and being in the same place, ignorant of one another, as happens in life; and to connect them afterwards, and to make the waiting for that connection a part of the interest." Since, however, the gathering in the quarantine station at Marseilles in Chapter z anticipates many of the future relationships between characters, Dickens was unable to make full use of this idea, a Carlylean version of Goethe's doctrine of "elective affinities." The original title of the book, Nobody's Fault, retained through the first eleven chapters, suggests that at the outset political satire of the Circumlocution Office w-as paramount in the author's mind. Only with Amy Dorrit's entrance in the second number did the novel's scope broaden to include other targets of social criticism. And not until the sixth number did Dickens feel confident enough of the direction his story had taken to write to Forster: "Society, the Circumlocution Office, and Mr. Gowan, are, of course, three parts of one idea and design." In the chapter entitled "The History of a Self-Tormentor," Dickens reverted to the inserted tale. In justification of its insertion, he told Forster: "In Miss Wade I had an idea, which I thought a new one, of making the introduced story so fit into surroundings impossible of separation from the main story, as [111/112] to make the blood of the book circulate through both." Since Miss Wade speaks for all the characters in the novel whose imprisonment within the confines of their egos is self-imposed, her disturbing confession is a brilliantly imaginative narrative device.
Our Mutual Friend, with its interweaving of the stories of two pairs of lovers of unequal station, is structurally the most ambitious of Dickens' novels. The twin narratives, polarized symbolically by the settings of the river and the dust-mounds, are so played off against each other as to arraign virtually every type of snobbish pretense ingrained in the Victorian class system. It is, however, in their conclusions that the last two novels on the grand scale most conclusively show that Dickens had learned to discipline his artistic conscience into conformity with the exigencies of plot. For here realism is no longer compromised by those conventional happy endings which in so many of the preceding stories provide for readers and characters alike an escape from the world as it has been represented. Joined in wedlock, Clenham and Amy Dorrit do not, like Woodcourt and Esther Summerson, withdraw to a retreat that has been prepared for them; but rather, as Dickens writes: "They went quietly down into the roaring streets, inseparable and blessed; and as they passed along in sunshine and shade, the noisy and the eager, and the arrogant and the forward and the vain, fretted, and chafed, and made their usual uproar." Rokesmith and Bella are permitted to enjoy the legacy accruing from the dust-mounds only after they have demonstrated that their happiness is not contingent on it; and Eugene, having abandoned the face-saving alternative of emigrating with Lizzie, proudly asserts: ". . . I will fight it out to the last gasp, with her and for her, here, in the open field."
Last Modified January 2000